Supporting divergent career paths: the 2-pronged approach of law degrees

By | October 14, 2010

law-choiceWith law firms recently cited as the highest-paying graduate employers by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), you might be surprised to learn that only around half of LLB graduates around the country go into the legal professions.

But graduating in law is very different from, say, graduating in medicine where the outcome is surely that students seek to qualify as doctors. A law degree is neither an intense practical experience, nor the means of passing through some sort of professional gateway – there are further and specific courses to be undertaken by those who want to go down that route.

Actually, there are, in truth, now a small number of degrees where the practical and vocational elements are to some extent interwoven with the academic, but the statement above remains true on the whole.

The situation is well understood by students, many of whom embark on a law degree with no intention of going on from there to qualify in the legal professions. Often, on enrolment, if a cohort of law students is asked who intends to qualify, 80%+ plus of hands will go up. What’s interesting is that  if the same cohort are asked the same question on graduation, a similar number of hands will go up – but not necessarily the same hands as  previously. In the end, many of those who harbour a wish to qualify when they graduate do fulfil this ambition. But we come back to the fact that only about half of law graduates do go on into the legal professions.

3 reasons law graduates don’t go into the legal professions

If LLB graduates are taking diverse career paths after gaining their degrees, why is this? Sometimes force of circumstance plays a hand but often it is a voluntary decision made for positive reasons:

1.      The recession can be blamed of late – this year vacancies are expected to fall by 12%.

2.      The cost of the further courses has always been an issue.

3.      There are a wide range of interesting career paths for which a law degree is seen as a stepping stone.

Law-related career paths

So if they’re not going into practice, what law-related careers are law graduates pursuing?

The answers are interesting. Jobs which use the law degree more or less directly include:

  • “paralegals”, ie working in a law firm but not as a solicitor, barrister, legal executive or licensed conveyancer; these  those who would have liked to qualify professionally and maybe still harbour such a wish, but for one reason or another that has not happened at least in the short term).
  • law costs draftsmen
  • legal secretaries and PAs
  • working in legal publishing
  • doing tax work
  • company secretarial work
  • trade mark attornies
  • doing community work
  • the legal enforcement and criminal justice fields.

They’ve even been known to go into law teaching!

Non law-related career paths

In addition to these law-related career paths, there are many other jobs where a legal knowledge can be very useful and the perceived rigor of a law degree is seen as positive factor by potential employers (even though law degrees match the same benchmarking standards as other qualifications – it’s just that those who have them are not going to draw that inconvenient fact to anyone’s attention!) Alternative career paths include:

  • personnel management/recruitment
  • public sector administration
  • the European Institutions
  • journalism
  • voluntary organisations
  • banking
  • accountancy.

Law degrees are also often used as a lever to enter a graduate recruitment scheme.

The role of the law degree

The point I’m making is that, while a law degree clearly sets someone up to move into the professions, it is also useful, directly or indirectly, for many other careers.

Clearly, any university that did not provide graduates who could immediately go onto professional qualification courses would be asking for their course to become terminally unpopular. But looking at the reality of which careers law graduates do actually go on to, isn’t it also the duty of universities to ensure that the end product remains a good well-rounded liberal law degree and not too angled to the requirements of the legal professions?

About Chris Gale

Chris graduated from University College Cardiff in 1977 and qualified as a solicitor in 1980. He moved to academia in 1990 with an appointment at the Polytechnic of North London and joined Leeds Metropolitan University (Leeds Law School) in 1994, becoming head of undergraduate studies and being responsible for profiling, timetabling and staff development across the School. He joined Bradford University Law School as the inaugural Director of Legal Studies in July 2005.

Specialties: Human rights, Sport and the Law, Public Confidence in the Legal System

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